Mind And Body
By Jackie Hart
Special to GoHolyCross.com
An athlete at any age, especially at the Division I level, is taught that taking care of your body is essential to success in your sport. Whether it's stretching before practice, taking an ice bath after, or hauling up to the Luth Athletic Complex to see your trainer, a healthy body is crucial. But what about a healthy mind? Addressing mental health is a stigma plaguing much of the country, but especially on college campuses and within athletic communities. In a mission to inspire change, the Holy Cross Student-Athlete Advisory Committee has taken on the challenge of breaking down the walls of talking about mental health. Their first step came at its most recent meeting, when Holy Cross Visiting Assistant Professor Gary Senecal of the Psychology Department arrived to do a lecture on sports psychology.
“When 33% of you are suffering from or showing signs of a mental illness, it's no longer uncommon, you are no longer a minority and it's time to break down the stigmas,” said Senecal. Beginning his talk with such a profound statement caught the attention of everyone in the room. As a professor, Senecal feels that his priority is to educate students about mental illness, and discussed how education at the forefront, can prevent harm and further treatment on the backend.
“The numbers of mental health issues among students and student-athletes on college campuses is growing at a pretty severe rate,” said Senecal. “In the last 30 years we're looking at numbers that are close to three times the greater risk increase for students and student-athletes. It is important that student-athletes are offered not only therapy, but education; information, resources and different theories that can help them in how they approach their sport, so that they can facilitate these mental struggles that they may go through."
Armani Dawkins, Assistant Director of Athletics / Student-Athlete Development, knew how beneficial Professor Senecal's talk would be, and wanted the student-athletes she works with in SAAC to hear it for themselves. “We thought it would be a good idea to get him in front of SAAC to open up the discussion of mental health with student-athletes,” said Dawkins. “Professor Senecal coming here tonight to deliver stats and knowledge can help remove the stereotype and negative connotations that come with mental health. It's shocking the amount of student-athletes and the number of students it affects campus wide, and it should be treated the same way as if it were a physical injury.”
Senecal spoke about the different areas and ways that mental health can factor into an athlete's performance and career. After asking the SAAC members why they play their sport, he said that most athletes continue playing because it's such a crucial piece of their identity, and they would not know who to be without it or would not be able to explain to people back home why they don't play their sport anymore. He went on to describe some of the concrete facts psychologists know about athletes. Senecal recalled his favorite study, one from the NFL, that athletes who last the longest in the league, are those who want to play for their teammates.
Dawkins agreed that a family dynamic is essential for any athlete or team. “In my time here at Holy Cross, one thing that has become very clear is that we are a family, which means we have a duty to take care of each other, and we look out for one another.” said Dawkins.
The student-athletes in attendance were able to relate the lecture to their own lives. After Senecal spoke about the challenge of balancing the roles of being a student and an athlete, sophomore men's lacrosse member Evan Kachris was glad faculty could understand the struggle. “It was interesting when he was talking about trying to become a balanced student-athlete,” said Kachris. “Seventy-five percent of student-athletes say they don't have a balanced lifestyle which can be very stressful on a day-to-day basis.”
After four years of playing a varsity sport, women's ice hockey senior Meghan O'Donnell felt every point Senecal made could accurately describe her career in athletics. “I could really connect to what he was saying,” said O'Donnell. “I thought the pillars he described of what influences athletes, what motivates them and what struggles we face all touched home with me.”
O'Donnell understands that mental health is a stigmatized topic, but it needs to be discussed and changed. “ I don't think people take mental health seriously enough, but it's a real problem that affects many people and sadly it just goes under the radar.” said O'Donnell.
SAAC will continue this mission of spreading awareness for mental health, when Professor Senecal will host a panel of former Holy Cross student-athletes and experts within the field of psychology to share this knowledge campus wide on Thursday, March 23 at 7:30 p.m., at the Hogan Campus Center Ballroom as part of the Be Well Series. Go here for more information on SAAC.